AJ Rafael | Singer & Songwriter

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I want to go back; you were talking about cross-promoting and being an Asian American. Do you think that is sometimes a hindrance, being an Asian performer where sometimes you are maybe considered “too Asian,” and mainstream audiences are turned away a little?

Definitely, but not in a bad way. I think we are doing more good than we think we are by showing ourselves on YouTube and things like that. When I go to these shows, yeah,, maybe they are more predominantly Asian and there is a lot more Asian Americans. When I’m at Disneyland, I get recognized by mostly Asians, and my friends have a freakin’ like game like where they’re like [snaps] these guys are fans, you know what I mean? And if not of me, then of our other friends on YouTube. I think more Asian Americans watch YouTube because it is pretty much the only place where they can watch Asian Americans. It’s tough, and I’ve talked about this in a lot of these interviews when they talk about the Asian-American thing is that — well, it’s funny; I don’t even think there is even an Asian on “Glee” anymore this season, but when Harry Shum was on “Glee,” nobody knew his name. They just knew him as “the Asian on ‘Glee.’” We’re still just waiting for the day when we can be like, “Man, remember that kid on ‘Glee’ who was a super good breakdancer who eventually became awesome at singing because he had more parts and stuff, and he was given a chance to be in the spotlight?” I think we’re all waiting for that, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with us being loud about it, us being loud that we are Asian American. I think it’s definitely important that that is happening. I was talking to some people at Berklee College of Music — I went to go visit again when I was in Boston — we were talking about the scene, I was talking about the whole Asian-American thing, and back in the day, it took a lot for the gay community to be on TV. But now in every show you see, there is at least one gay character, so that’s great for that community and for everybody. That’s great for everybody I think. I think it’s going to take some time for there to be an Asian American in every — I mean, we shouldn’t trying to saturate the scene, but I think it’s time for some heroes to be on regular traditional media, so other people can look at us and be like, “Yo, these guys are mad-talented and not just on YouTube.” So it’s definitely not a hindrance. Yeah, I don’t think it hinders anything; I think we are all part of the bigger picture, and as far as I’m concerned, I feel like I’ve done enough — not enough, I am going to keep striving to do more — but I know i’ve done a lot for the next generation of the Asian-American community as far as in entertainment, you know? So I think as long as we keep being proud of it and not try to hide behind our race, I think we’ll be fine.

For you personally, what is success? As a musician, what would happen that would make you go, “Ah, I’ve made it. I’m at the pinnacle of my success”?

Well, it used to be when I was 16, 17 on Myspace, I was like, “I’ve got to get signed.” It’s obviously not that anymore for a lot of people. Success to me is, I reached success when I wrote my first song, and I brought it to a show and people were singing along. I think from then on it was like only really go up from here, and I think when I was in the Philippines that year, and I sold out a show in Manila, every single song I was singing, even the slow ones that I play only because I want to tell that story, even the slow ones with a lot of words and the verses and things like that, they were all singing along, and that is something that I can just take to the grave. That is a highlight of my life. Just being able to touch people with my music, with my original music and my stories, to have them relate to that, is a success in its own. But of course we’re always striving to share our music with everybody in the world. Being quote on quote famous is always a good thing, I think, so that would be a game-changer if me and the other artists in our community were regulars on the TV and things like that. TV doesn’t play music anymore, but you know what I mean. But definitely I also think success has to do with the way like my lifestyle that I’m living — I still live here, this is my mom’s house.  I live with my mom and my little sister Justine, but I still think that my mom being proud of me is success. The fact that she supports what I’m doing is like the best thing to have, and if she approves of that, I think you are on your way to success from there, to have your parents’ approval and things like that. My dad passed away when I was 10, and he was a musician not making a lot of money for the family. He was telling my mom that he didn’t want us to be musicians because of the struggle that he was having, but the fact that YouTube and the Internet and partnership and things like that, revenue-sharing and things like that, we can make music a career, and the fact that that is possible and that I can carry on my dad’s legacy to having a stable career is success to me. And of course having my whole family and just being happy I think. I truly — even when I first put together my band and things like this, we were all getting excited. We were like, “Yo, we can take this on the road. We’re going to be huge, we are going to play for stadiums and stuff,” but really that stuff doesn’t matter to me anymore. I’m just like slowly realizing that as long as I just keep doing me, I really don’t want a record deal, you know? I don’t want to get a huge advance from a company and have to pay them back with hard work and I don’t even get to own my songs at the end of the day. It’s sad because a record deal is like a loan with really bad interest. And I don’t want that. I just want to continue what I’m doing. I recently just signed with Maker Studios for YouTube network, and I’m not controlled creatively in any way at all, but I think companies like that are helping us out so we don’t have to conform to the big record label thing, you know? They’ve been in control for way too long; we don’t need them anymore.

You signing to Maker Studios — that’s news to me.

Yeah, that is the first time I’m even saying it.

Why did you choose Maker over the other studios?

Maker, as far as I’m concerned, was started by YouTubers, and Maker music was a huge deal for me to sign with them as well. I know a lot of people on Maker, and I know Knocksteady was picked up by Maker and stuff and got some of those head guys helping run Maker too, so I had a lot of friendly conversations with them, and there wasn’t any battling like, “You should sign with our network because that other network is wack,” and I got that a lot from other networks, and I was like, “Why is this even happening? Why are they even bagging on these other networks?” Just present what you have as a network, and if I choose you or whatever, or if you want me, that’s cool, then I’ll choose you. But I think Maker had the best and the friendliest vibe, at least for me. I didn’t even talk to [NMR CEO] Benny about it when I was first signing, when I was first getting emails from networks. I got a lot of advice that Maker was the best one for me, and there are a lot of really great artists in that network including Jeremy Passion just signed, and he was a game-changer in the very beginning. He was one of the first guys, especially Filipino Americans and probably one the of the first Asian Americans to put a video online; he put it on Spinatics of him singing “My Boo” by Alicia Keyes, Usher. And he was a pioneer of the Internet back in the day with Myspace and stuff. We’re just taking it; we are going full right now. So to have Jeremy and Timothy DeLaGhetto — I think I know is signed on Maker — our other friend Melissa Palmer, it’s good company, so it doesn’t really change what I’m doing. I’m just going to keep doing it. 

It’s good for you because you want hands off, you want to own your music, you want free creative reign.

Right, and I don’t really care for monetizing covers either really. I think that was a big pitch by other networks. I don’t truly want to be making my paycheck off other people’s songs. People do it, and that’s great so they can pay the bills and stuff, but I personally don’t want to do that. I want to make my money on my own, and I think that is a huge part of Maker. They weren’t trying to sell like, “Oh, we have this huge music library that you can cover songs.” [Dogs bark]

You have three dogs, right?

I have three dogs.

They’re all white.

They are all white. I’m racist. [laughs] I’m just kidding. No, I have two American Eskimos, and one she’s like a maltese poodle. I am big on reptiles mostly, just recently. 

Now why do you love reptiles so much? They’re not cuddly.

They are not cuddly, definitely not. I’ve tried to fall asleep with one of my snakes — that didn’t go too well.

Yeah, I can imagine.

It really just happened. I went into Petsmart one day — no, Petco — and I saw this ball python, and they are just like little babies, and they were just looking at me through the glass, and I was like, “Dang, I want one!” And my mom was in the Philippines at the time, and I was like, “Mom, can I get a snake?” And I was thinking she was going to say yes; I was ready to buy it, I was at Petco, you know what I mean? And she was like, “No! That is the devil!” “Devil,” in a Filipino accent, and I was like, “Are you serious? Like Filipino moms still think that snakes are the devil?” I am sure a lot of Asian moms think that. It’s not a good look, I guess. The devil is in the snake. I’m not really sure why that happened, but once my mom said no, I started looking for the next best thing, so I got a blue-tongued skink because I was doing my research on different reptiles and like reptiles that are easy to take care of, because snake is probably the easiest thing you can take care of truly. All you have to do is feed it once a week if it’s a baby and then once a month when it’s an adult.

Do you feed it live or frozen?

I feed one of my snakes live, which is unfortunate because he won’t eat frozen, thawed, so I have to literally drop a live either mouse or small rat, and a small baby rat is about the same size as an adult mouse. Just drop it in and just watch it. 

Is that fun to watch for you?

I don’t want PETA to be like, “Yo! Yo, AJ Rafael!” No, I mean it’s exciting to watch definitely. I wouldn’t say it’s like fun. It keeps you on your toes. But, the other day — I was told to do this — if my snake is not eating frozen or thawed, then freshly kill it, so it’s still warm. So I was looking at ways of how to do this online, and basically I have to get my best friend Dusty to smash it with, smash the head with — not smash the head, like knock it out really hard with the bottom of a really heavy cup. 

That’s horrible.

It is, but it’s just a one-shot wonder, you know what I mean? We didn’t like torture the animal.

Was it messy?

Worse stuff on YouTube. Like the guy is feeding the snake, and he’s like, “Hold on,” and he goes [mimes neck-breaking] with his own hand. Like we just had to do it, and I was like, “I don’t wanna hear it! I don’t wanna hear it! I don’t wanna to hear it!” And it was just dead, and we put it in the thing, and he ate it because he thought it was still alive. 

PETA is not going to be happy with you.

[laughs] No, definitely not. I don’t know. I think they’re cool with like — that is like real life; it’s the circle of life right there.

Getting back to you being signed or unsigned, you’ve acknowledged that your music is mostly known online and that you have a lot of Asian American fans, but you’d like to see it on radio, you’d like to see it on TV …

Oh totally. Totally.

Do you think you can achieve that without being signed to a label?

See, that’s the tough thing. When I released “Red Roses,” my distribution company — first of all, we got “Red Roses” into Target and Best Buy without having a label. We just had a distributor who just distributed for us and was sharing my numbers as if I was an artist on a record label. So that was really cool to get that happening without that. But radio’s still controlled by the labels, but I think eventually if I’m not playing to the fact that you need a label, and a bunch of other artists are doing that same thing, it’s going to change. I believe in it anyway. I hope we get to a point where it’s all about the people power, as opposed to the label has a new artist that they want to share, and they put that song on the radio and stuff. I think it’s gonna get there as long as I keep — and all of us — keep that in mind. Don’t let the bigger guys control you just so you can be on the radio, but then there’s that balance where radio’s really, really huge exposure too. It’s just a balance game, you know? But I have played to the fact that I’m not going to pay a radio station $10 thousand with money I don’t have right now. Maybe if I had it, for sure I’d be like, “Dude, here. Play my single and stuff,” but the record labels still control that and they get to do that for not that much money probably. Just because they’re record labels, which is so tough, but you know, we’ll get there I think.

So you’ve said that your “Red Roses” album is about your past relationships. What is that like putting your life out there in your artwork?

Well, it means a lot that — you know, as I was saying earlier — people are singing along and stuff like that, so that’s really cool, which means they have probably been through the same stuff as I have. And when I see the comments on YouTube, they are like, “I totally relate to this. I see this story,” and that’s really a huge thing when I’m sharing my music; I want other people to relate. But writing those songs is a different thing; you’re trying to bring emotions back and bring it to — I don’t know — it’s a lot of emotions happening, you know? And you’re trying to put it on this piece of paper, so.

And so that leads into my next question: What is it like being a public figure where people want to know and talk about your personal life? You went through, from what I understand, a public breakup with Jenny Suk, and I guess a lot of people talked about it.

It’s tough, because you put your relationship out there like that, that when it eventually comes to an end [sighs] — I mean, you don’t really, we didn’t really owe it anybody to say, “Hey, we broke up.” And we didn’t really put it out there, but it was pretty obvious from like Twitter and Facebook and stuff. It was a hard time for me. I was like, “I can’t — I don’t want to do this again, this public relationship thing.” I mean, me and Jenny are cool now, you know. We’re on very civil terms. Like I would say she is one of my good friends. So it was tough to go through a breakup with somebody you loved and went through all this stuff. We were together for a year, and then people keep asking you questions till now. Oh my god, it’s hilarious — on Google you just type “AJ Rafael,” the top five things that come up automatically are, “Is AJ Rafael dating Jenny Suk? Is AJ Rafael dating Kathy Nguyen? Is AJ Rafael dating Tori Kelly?” Like people just talk anyways. With anybody you do a duet with, but obviously mostly Jenny because we were putting ourselves out there a lot; we were making a lot of videos. I mean, there was even a point when I was like, “I want to delete all these videos.” Which I’m sure happens to a lot of people, but I don’t think you should because it’s a good memory. Like everything that happened is for a reason, so I don’t regret anything about the public breakup too. I think it was great for the people who were actually paying attention to it that they were like, “Yeah, these guys are human, and they go through the same things.” And I think people can get a little overdramatic on Twitter and stuff like that sometimes, but I think it’s a good wake-up call to a lot of people to say like, “Hey, these guys aren’t robots. They feel something, and they’re not the perfect couple, obviously.” We had a lot of fights on Twitter and stuff, but when I look back on it I just kind of laugh and will just be like, “That was a good time, and you know, it was good while it lasted.” 

And I understand too that you had kind of a public tiff with Gabe Bondoc. How are you two now?

[laughs] We’re really good too. He just did the last show of the Play.Live.Breathe. tour with me, and this is the first time in a couple years that we have had an actual show together where I had asked him to be a part of it. He was part of Music Speaks back in 2009, and we had like a public tiff over some stupid stuff, and there were a lot of other artists involved as well. But it’s been a couple years, and I think we all can be immature at times, and I’ll be the first to admit that I was being pretty irrational sometimes when it came to that. Like I was retweeting nonsense, you know. Like retweeting the haters — I don’t know — I’m glad it’s over, and me and Gabe, our brotherhood and friendship transcended. Transcended any negativity, so I’m happy for that, and it was a really interesting time. It was an interesting time. I was hating man, I was hating bad, and there were a lot of things on both ends where we all could have done something differently. We talked about it, so we’re good, and I think that’s all that matters, and some of the fans still ask about that as well. I get comments occasionally.

So now it’s done. You are both at peace.

We are at peace. I mean, it wasn’t really a rivalry, but the fans took it as that. While that was happening, there were comments on both our videos that we put out: “Gabe is better than AJ,” “AJ is greater than Gabe,” “Gabe is greater than AJ,” all that stuff, but we’re good.

But you clearly believe that you are better than Gabe Bondoc, right? Just say it now — we’re team AJ.

[laughs] I really truly believe that Gabe is one of the best vocalists that I have had the pleasure to be around. For sure, like top ten for me, for sure. I strive to have a voice like his definitely.

Cool. So back to your “Red Roses” album: On iTunes, it is categorized as teen pop. Do you consider it teen pop? What do you think it is about your music thematically that attracts so many teenaged fans?

I think we had to sell it like that because we know that the demographic from YouTube and Facebook, analytics whatever, that the demographic is 13 to 19. I do think it transcends past that age; I do think there are a lot of 25-year-olds and 30-year-olds who are still getting their heart broken and stuff and relating to these songs. But I think I was telling this to somebody earlier — I think a lot of my songs relate to the audience that has had their heart broken for the first time. That usually happens in high school, maybe middle school for some people. My sister is in 8th grade — I don’t think she has had her heart broken, but I think high school is a vulnerable time, and I was going through all these things between high school and a little after high school. “Red Roses” is basically high school and a little bit after high school, and some songs are about the same girl. I think it touches more of the teen audience, because that is when I wrote those songs. I was 17 when I wrote “Starlight Nights,” which is one of the songs on the album, and the album came out last year. I was 22, so I think these songs just mean a lot to that audience because of their relatability. That’s funny — I forgot that it was under teen pop. Yeah, it’s under teen pop at like Ameba and things like that too. That’s odd because it’s not traditional teen pop. I guess you can consider it teen pop. You can consider it what you want, but it’s definitely not traditional candy teen, Aaron Carter, Jesse McCartney-pop, you know what I mean? It’s like songwriter teen pop I guess.

Yeah, it was confusing to me.

I mean, it’s kind of weird because there is that singer-songwriter genre, but I don’t have that singer-songwriter sound. But I’m a singer-songwriter, you know what I mean? So I don’t know. You can just throw my music wherever; it’s just my music. 

I wanted to talk with you about your recent voting PSA for Filipino Awareness Month.

Yeah, KAYA grassroots.

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